We live in a world where societal norms relating to social interaction have been turned on their head. We used to live in a world where daily social interaction was the norm, but now social isolation has become the new normal. How this affects us has a lot to do with where we sit in the spectrum between introvert and extrovert.
I think you can guess where this article is heading.
But first, a recap
For those of you unsure about the differences between introverts and extroverts, it’s not about shy people or confident people. Many introverts can be loud and outgoing, and many extroverts can be quiet and contemplative. It’s all about context and setting.
The thing that all introverts have in common is that some forms of social interaction can be emotionally draining, and they need time away from other people to recharge their batteries. Extroverts, on the other hand, need social interaction to lift their emotional energy levels.
Where do I fit on the spectrum?
Well, it depends. Put me in a room full of creative people working collaboratively on an exciting and innovative project, and I’ll be one of the loudest and most enthusiastic participants. I’ll feed off the energy in the room as if I was an extrovert.
But in truth, I’m pretty much your classic introvert. Place me in a social situation with the same people — say after-work drinks in a loud and busy pub — and I’ll be the opposite. I’ll be quiet and withdrawn and aloof, because social situations that require small talk, especially in a crowded place, drains my emotional energy almost instantaneously.
Shopping malls are another example of where I sit on the spectrum. I’m fine for about an hour. At first, I can mingle with the other shoppers quite happily, but by the second hour I start shutting down, and heaven help you if you’re with me during the third hour, because that’s when Mr Grumpy appears.
My wife, on the other hand, can spend hours out shopping with no ill effects. She’s a classic extrovert who seeks social interaction daily. It’s no coincidence that’s she’s on first-name basis with baristas and wait-staff and shop assistants, not only in our neighbourhood, but all over Sydney.
I don’t mind a small amount of chit-chat with the staff in my local cafes and shops. But the difference between my wife and me is that she actively seeks out these social interactions, whereas I’d be quite happy to go shopping without speaking to another human being.
How are we both doing in the age of social isolation?
Well, as you’d imagine, our experience is slightly different. I’m in my element, working from home and socially isolating. I’m really enjoying the peace and quiet. And because I’m not socially interacting with a lot of people, my energy levels are staying high all day. It’s a nice feeling.
But my wife needs more than me and the cats for her daily social interaction hit. Fortunately for her, many of our local cafes are still open for takeaway. So she’s been going out getting drinks (cappuccino for her, hot Nutella for me), or ordering takeaway for lunch. In that way, she’s been getting her daily dose of social interaction. Maybe not as much as she needs, but enough to get by. She even chats to our favourite barista on the phone sometimes even when not preordering.
But not all extroverts are coping as well as her because they are too isolated from their social networks. And some introverts are suffering too, because they are stuck inside of large households, and our social distancing rules currently prevent them from going outside to a park to sit quietly and read a book. But I also know some extroverts who are loving lockdown because they are enjoying the extra time to have some decent social interactions with their household.
So, once again, how people are coping with social distancing is not merely about whether they are an introvert or extrovert; it’s about context and setting.
It’s the lack of choice that’s the issue
Before the lockdown, we lived in a world where introverts would start each day with a full battery that gradually went flat as they encountered the everyday social interactions of day-to-day life. In contrast, extroverts would begin their day with a low battery that needed to be recharged by actively seeking social interactions.
The great thing about the way the world used to work is that we all had a choice. Introverts could decide to practice social distancing whenever they needed to, and extroverts could choose to seek out social interactions whenever they needed to.
But in the age of social distancing, we’ve lost that choice. Extroverts are not allowed to seek out social interactions with friends and family when they need to, and introverts aren’t always able to find the space to socially isolate at home.
The slow journey out of lockdown
Fortunately, some social isolation rules are being relaxed, and here in New South Wales couples and their children are once again allowed to visit friends and family, though encouraged to maintain social distance. So hopefully things are getting better for my extrovert friends.
Hopefully, introverts will soon be allowed to sit in a quiet park when they need some time away from their household without being hassled by the police. In the meantime, those of us who are enjoying lockdown, like me, still have time to enjoy the peace and quiet of our socially distant world. I know it won’t last forever, but it’s nice to experience it for a little while.